Young actors take on gang violence in Prime Stage Theatre's The Outsiders | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Young actors take on gang violence in Prime Stage Theatre's The Outsiders

click to enlarge Young actors take on gang violence in Prime Stage Theatre's The Outsiders
Photo: Laura Slovesko
Dakoda Hutton, Dominic Raymond, and Carolyn Jerz in The Outsiders
Watching Prime Stage Theatre’s The Outsiders, now playing at New Hazlett Theater, often feels like a high school performance rather than one put on by seasoned pros; but, that’s not to say it’s not worth your time. The production, directed by Scott P. Calhoon, is best enjoyed if you keep in mind that the play is based off of a story first written by a teenager, and that the company has bravely hired a cast of up-and-coming actors who are similar in age to the young characters they’re portraying.

Pittsburgh’s Prime Stage Theatre, whose mission is “bringing literature to life,” is highlighting the work by S.E. Hinton, who was only 15 when she started writing the 1967 coming-of-age novel, and 18 when it was published. The story, based in Oklahoma in 1960, tells the story of two rival gangs — the “greasers,” the kids on the poor side of town; and the “socs,” the rich kids on the other — through the eyes of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy (Dominic Raymond).

While The Outsiders has been named one of the most influential novels of all time, it has also been included in banned book lists over the years for its portrayal of gang violence. For this production, Prime Stage hired a former Philadelphia gang member and the current director of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health's Pittsburgh Violence Prevention Project, Richard Garland, to work with the cast. Fair warning: characters die both in Hinton’s original novel and in this version adapted for stage by Christopher Sergel, but Prime Stage’s production plays it safe; the only visible blood, a brilliant red glow from spot-on stage lighting.

Perhaps it’s less the fault of the play and more the fault of a modern world full of political unrest and school shootings that has followed 50 years after the novel was first penned that a story that once seemed so controversial, now seems kind of … tame. On a positive note, though, this means that parents shouldn’t be too guarded in bringing young people to the theater. If they can handle a Disney death, they should be able to handle the ones in this show.

But where the fight scenes generally lacked in excitement, the choreography did provide some outstanding moments from the young cast: silent scenes done in slow-motion could have still been entertaining at twice the length, and the young actors sprinting back and forth across the stage, jumping over stage props and swerving around other cast members to convey the length of their voyage, was a thrill. The set, like most performances staged in New Hazlett Theater, was simple but convincing; a door frame on wheels rolled around throughout the production to convey characters entering a new scene, especially effective.

Raymond holds his own as the story’s narrator; his lines, perfectly memorized and recited, but never quite entirely believable in his role as a '60s greaser. (He channeled the characters’ innocence so much that I couldn’t help wishing I had seen him play someone modern like Charlie in Perks of Being a Wallflower.) Standout performances of the show instead came from Johnny Cade (Dakoda Hutton, channeling his best Ralph Macchio, who played the role in the 1983 film version of the novel), Ponyboy’s best friend and a sweet kid who is spooked by a previous gang jump; Sodapop (Lawrence Karl), Ponyboy’s loving older brother who brings the best chemistry to the show; and Cherry (Carolyn Jerz), the kind-hearted but tormented rich girl who does her best to bridge the gap between the two rival gangs.

All told, with all the violence in the world, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to see a nice play resembling a high school production. Is it less exciting than one that would have been performed by a more seasoned cast? Perhaps. But seeing young actors convey a story written by a young writer that ultimately delivers a good life lesson to a roomful of readers is still something worth celebrating.
The Outsiders. Continues through Sun., March 15. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. $15-35.